Kindling Interest in Denmark

The Kindle –’s answer to the electronic book-reader – is now winning influential converts over on this side of the Atlantic. This includes Nikolai Thyssen of the Danish commentary newspaper Politiken – although you have every right to doubt that just from looking at the title of the article he has just written about it, The wolf in Kindle-clothing. Rest assured, though, that after spending one month and six e-books with a Kindle he is ready to concede that the electronic book breakthrough that experts have been predicting for decades is finally upon us.

The main reason for this, he declares, is Amazon’s “e-ink” technology, which succeeds in making the Kindle’s screen behave just like the regular ink-on-paper we are all used to from time immemorial: you can read a Kindle directly in sunlight, and, indeed, in the evening you better have some external source of light available somewhere nearby, as usual. But another reason the Kindle seems to have some momentum behind it is that, just like the iPod with iTunes, this content-delivery device comes with an on-line store already stocked with many thousands of bits of content for sale – this time e-books, of course, of which Amazon offers 300,000 and counting – many of which you can certainly assume that you would be interested in reading, if you are into books at all in the first place. And you can even beam them into your Kindle, after purchase, wirelessly.

But it’s precisely that iPod-iTunes analogy that also suggests the Kindle’s biggest drawback, which can be summarized by the letters “DRM” (standing for “digital rights management,” of course). Music bought from iTunes is now no longer hampered by any sort of DRM, but that has only been true as of recently and it seemed that Apple had to go through a long learning process to finally get to the point where the company – and the record companies that were its ultimate suppliers of music – was comfortable doing away with that. On the other hand, e-books from Amazon for the Kindle certainly have DRM restrictions, limiting with whom you can share them and on what sort of machine you can read them. As Thyssen puts it, they are “regionalized” the way we are used to seeing with DVDs, and copy-protected the way we were used to seeing with digital music – until iTunes finally did away with DRM.

So in the first place, Thyssen fears that Amazon is dooming itself to relearning the lesson Apple took so long to learn about DRM for iTunes – if the ultimate unsuitability of DRM for books is in fact a valid “lesson” – and its customers to putting up with various forms of DRM for as long as it does so. But he also sees another threat, and this is where the “wolf in sheep’s clothing” metaphor comes into play: Amazon is now aggressively pushing e-books at prices lower than their paper counterparts – apparently against the preference of many of the publishers it works with – because it could thereby eventually manage to dominate the e-book market, with DRM preventing its customers from defecting to other e-book formats. Then someday e-books would not be so cheap anymore, as monopoly pricing would be introduced, and Amazon could further gain who-knows-what other powers over what could be published in the new electronic format that it owned and what could not be.

It seems a legitimate point to make, even as Thyssen tries to illustrate it using what seems to me to be a thoroughly ill-suited example, namely the VHS-vs.-Betamax fued of the mid-1980s. For now, though, he makes it clear that his biggest problem with his Kindle is that its wireless book-delivery service is not available yet outside the US.

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